The advocacy groups state that a professor affiliated with Stanford University has published a research study that resulted in several media outlets wrongfully suggesting that artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to detect sexual orientation. Further, GLAAD and HRC today urged all media who either covered the study or plan to in future coverage to include the myriad flaws in the study’s methodology — including that it made inaccurate assumptions, categorically left out any non-white subjects, has not been peer reviewed, and many other issues enumerated below.

“Technology cannot identify someone’s sexual orientation. What their technology can recognize is a pattern that found a small subset of out white gay and lesbian people on dating sites who look similar. Those two findings should not be conflated,” said Jim Halloran, GLAAD’s Chief Digital Officer. “This research isn’t science or news, but it’s a description of beauty standards on dating sites that ignores huge segments of the LGBTQ community, including people of colour, transgender people, older individuals, and other LGBTQ people who don’t want to post photos on dating sites.”

Halloran continued, “At a time where minority groups are being targeted, these reckless findings could serve as weapon to harm both heterosexuals who are inaccurately outed, as well as gay and lesbian people who are in situations where coming out is dangerous.”

HRC Director of Public Education and Research Ashland Johnson, said, “This is dangerously bad information that will likely be taken out of context, is based on flawed assumptions, and threatens the safety and privacy of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people alike. Imagine for a moment the potential consequences if this flawed research were used to support a brutal regime’s efforts to identify and/or persecute people they believed to be gay. Stanford should distance itself from such junk science rather than lending its name and credibility to research that is dangerously flawed and leaves the world — and this case, millions of people’s lives — worse and less safe than before.”

GLAAD and HRC called attention to the following points included in the research:

  • The study did not look at any non-white individuals.
  • The study did not independently verify crucial information including age and sexual orientation and took at face value information appearing online.
  • The study was not peer reviewed.
  • The study assumed there was no difference between sexual orientation and sexual activity, which is incorrect.
  • The study assumed there were only two sexual orientations — gay and straight — and does not address bisexual individuals.
  • The study only looked at out gay men and women who are white, of a certain age and are on dating sites. It is not surprising that gay people (out, white, similar age) who choose to go on dating sites post photos of themselves with similar expressions and hairstyles (one of the characteristics according to the study).
  • The research states: “Outside the lab, the accuracy rate would be much lower” (the lab = certain dating sites) and is 10 points less accurate for women.
  • The study claims to detect gay men from the pool of photos on the dating sites with 81% accuracy. Even if this were true given the aforementioned flaws, it still means that heterosexual men could, therefore, be identified as gay nearly 20% of the time.
  • The study reviewed superficial characteristics in the photos of out gay men and women on dating sites such as weight, hairstyle and facial expression.

Stanford University and the researchers hosted a call with GLAAD and HRC several months ago in which the groups raised these myriad concerns and warned against overinflating the results or the significance of them. There was no follow-up after the concerns were shared and none of these flaws have been addressed.